SI Dolphin Education Program 2020 Season Review

Thank you for a wonderful season! We just wrapped our 2020 Seabrook Island Dolphin Education Program. Despite the difficult year the world has experienced, we had a great season at the spit. The program’s 14 volunteer educators spoke to 2,974 visitors over 126 days spent at the beach. We also recorded 800 strand feeding events! That is a remarkable number and probably a fraction of what actually occurs, indicating the inlet is a critical feeding habitat for this portion of Charleston’s resident dolphins.

Seabrook Island was the second most-used location for strand feeding, behind a portion of Kiawah’s beach. This season, we documented that the dolphins spend a greater proportion of time in or near the inlet than previously known. On some days, the dolphins stayed in the inlet for 12 hours (including a high tide). On other days, the dolphins would come and go from Beachwalker Park over an extended period of time. This indicates the dolphins rely on this inlet more heavily than previously known and we intend to investigate this further.

We also documented the 3-year-old calf (known as Kai) often watching others strand feed, working the edges closely with its mother, and other behaviors that appear it is learning the process. No new calves were identified this year. This information is valuable as it indicates the spit is a critical habitat for this group of dolphins and disturbance could alter their behavior, thus, losing this phenomenon on Seabrook Island. 

This new information is very exciting and the value to both the tourism and local community (and general beauty) of Seabrook Island is high but should be regarded cautiously because, without continued monitoring, there is a high risk of losing this unique behavior. Although the inlet is not a ‘No Wake Zone,’ we’d encourage boaters to move slowly and cautiously through the inlet for the safety of these animals. The dolphins may be feeding or young calves may be close to the surface looking for their mother and the wake can cause them to retreat or abandon feeding efforts. 

While the majority of our interactions are positive, we cannot stress enough the importance of following the town’s ordinances, the federal guidelines (no feeding or harassing), and our recommendations to protect this valuable and unique feeding behavior. Though a single disturbance may seem inconsequential, these animals face disturbances from kayaks, bystanders, and boats throughout the day and this could alter their behavior.

To learn more, please email Lauren Rust at kiawahdolphineducation@gmail.com. If you’d like to follow the dolphins or support our cause, please visit our website or the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network on Facebook. 

-Submitted by Lauren Rust, Dolphin Education Program

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